The Dream Lover: A Novel
By Elizabeth Berg
Elizabeth Berg imagines the life of George Sand (Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin), France’s first bestselling female novelist. Her historical autobiography offers much to like and a few things some my not like as much. Compared to a spate of efforts to bring novelistic life to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Hadley Richardson Hemingway, it ranks as a worthy effort.
Sand was a popular novelist in her day, and quite a prolific one at that, authoring dozens of books and plays from her late 20s until her death at age 71. As Berg speaking as Sand points out, much of what she wrote about she drew from her own life and what she observed around her.
There was lots to observe, too, as she ran with a crowd of Parisian intellectuals, writers, artists, musicians, and actors, many still well-known to this day, including Delacroix, Flaubert, Chopin, and others. Many of these individuals make an appearance in Berg’s novel, but none hold the stage for very long, and none leave the impression a less known actress, Marie Dorval, does.
Despite her many novels, today most probably remember Sand as a rebel of sorts, a woman who lived for the most part on her own terms (not easy for a woman to do in mid-19th century France), who, from time to time, dressed as man, who drank and smoked with the best of them, and who took many lovers, always in search of a true love and always disappointed.
Berg for most of the book alternates between Sand’s growing up in provincial Nohant, where her grandmother raised her in the absence of her mother, and her maturation as a person and writer in Paris, these alternated against her life, work, and lovers in 1830s Paris. Berg focuses on Sand’s reason for life: her quest for love. In particular, Berg imagines the rumored but never proved love Sand had for and consummated with Marie Dorval. In a novel that sort of ambles along without, sorry to say, nearly the life and spirit Sand possessed, this fictionalized love affair and aftermath gives readers the passion and heat they might expect from someone in love with love. None of the other affairs covered come close to this one in the book.
Berg handles the settings and the social and legal constraints placed upon women forcefully, serving to highlight just how bold Sand was, and how many of the time would have found her behavior shocking. In conjunction with showing Sand living as much as she could by her own lights, Berg portrays Sand as thinking woman being, to a degree, their own enemies and complicit in their second-class status.
Sand’s emotional life wasn’t easy, because life as a writer isn’t easy. You need long periods of solitude to contemplate and write. That usually means structuring your life around your craft, which Sand did. As Berg has her lovers saying, she was a writing machine, and as she achieved more and more success churning out the books became more of a job. Not much time, then, for long and attentive affairs, nor for watching over and caring for your children. Lovers resented her for her success, as Berg shows, and her life with her daughter Solange one of conflict, with resentment as a central issue between them. Writers sometimes make terrible sacrifices. Sand certainly seems to have.
Stalwart she was, though, Sand as Berg imagines her (and why she titled the book The Dream Lover, for her own dream of Sand and for Sand’s unfilled quest for the true thing) never stopped looking for love.
Generally, a good effort on Berg’s part, but marred by a slow pace and then a parade of personalities who receive cameos, which may seem contradictory until your read the book. Also, some may wish Berg had devoted more space, or any space regarding some of Sand’s work, to Sand’s novels. Then, though, Berg would have had to write a different kind of novel, and a longer one at that. Best to leave that to a biographer. w/c